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Six Nations Preview 2011 - Weekend Four

Saturday, 12 March 2011

  • Italy v France, Stadio Flamino, 14:30
  • Wales v Ireland, Millenium Stadium, 17:00

Sunday, 13 March 2011

  • England v Scotland, Twickenham, 15:00

So just two weeks of 2011 Six Nations championship left, and really it can't pass quick enough. The general quality of rugby on view has been pretty dire and if the Southern Hemisphere teams are staying awake long enough to watch it; they'll see nothing to alarm them for the World Cup. It feels almost treasonous saying it, but when set against the constant excitement and tension of the Heineken Cup, the Six Nations has largely become quite dull. Could the format be tweaked to enliven matters?

Perhaps it could, but it's unlikely to be done by the current Six Nations Council, a set of dinosaurs who would still be awarding three points for a try if they could. They react to talk of introducing a bonus point system, used in every other rugby competition in the world, like it's some sort of witchcraft. They still think they're the only show in town, which is simply no longer the case. It would be sad if their arrogance leads to apathy on the part of the rugby public.

The England-France match was hyped to the gills as the championship decider but it was a depressingly poor game full of basic errors from both sides. Not that England will particularly care though, for as Ireland showed two years ago, a Grand Slam doesn't always have to be pretty. The lack of aesthetic beauty in their rugby won't bother them if they can win their first Grand Slam in eight years. After beating France, they're now virtual certainties for the championship as it's hard to see Scotland putting up much of a fight this Sunday at Twickenham. You'd have to fancy them for another twenty point plus win and with their points difference already at +61 thanks to their big win over Italy, it's highly unlikely anyone will come close to them. So the only remaining question after this weekend will be whether they can go the whole way and beat Ireland in their final match in the Aviva Stadium.

England have been further boosted by the return from injury of Courtney Lawes and Tom Croft. England won't name their team until Friday but it seems likely it will be unchanged and Croft and Lawes will have to make do with spots on the bench. For the poor Scots, a season that started with such promise has fallen apart and now they're looking at a wooden spoon battle with Italy in the final match. They were terrible against Ireland, absolutely brutal. Ireland's stupidity in giving away so many kickable penalties kept them in the game and gave the crowd an exciting finish but it only served to paper over the cracks for Scotland.

If the match was still going on, Scotland would be no closer to scoring a try. Try-scoring has been a problem for them for a while now, however at least they had been reasonable enough defensively. Now even the defence is in tatters as they effectively handed Ireland three tries with errors that would embarrass a schoolboy team. Andy Robinson must be wondering about the curse of the contract extension before the World Cup. After making seven changes for the Ireland match, he's made another four for the England match. Nathan Hines should at least add a bit of steel to the pack, but it's hard to escape the impression that Robinson is floundering. In any case, it should be a comfortable win for England.

For France, who were so poor against England, it's a trip to Italy where they've often struggled. Their coach Marc Lievremont made a serious error in picking Sebastien Chabal against England at number eight and shunting Imanol Harinorduquy to the flank. The 'caveman' was exposed as the fraud he is with a hopeless performance. However the coach refuses to see the error of his ways and he's now compounded his mistake by picking Chabal again and dropping Harinorduquy altogether. "I checked the video and his performance was far from horrendous" was his hardly inspirational justification for retaining Chabal. The French media are correctly up in arms about the decision and don't so much want Lievremont sacked, as committed to an insane asylum.

At least the Italians put up a better show against Wales than they did in their humiliation against England. Indeed with some better luck (they had a perfectly good try not allowed) and a decent place-kicker they could well have won. Mirco Bergamasco is a fine player, but an international place-kicker he is not. They need to find one badly to turn these narrow defeats into narrow wins. The Italians should be able to put up a decent show again but the French should still win by about ten to fifteen points.

And so to Ireland's game against Wales. Both teams are in near identical situations. They've both won scrappily in Scotland and Italy and both lost their one home game by a score. And as much as Ireland have been giving away penalties to beat the band, Wales have been penalised almost as much. However there does seem to be more positive vibes coming out of the Wales camp.

They've made two changes to the team that won in Italy. James Hook is brought back in at out-half in place of Stephen Jones, who again drops to the bench. Jonathan Davies has recovered from the hamstring injury that meant he missed the Italy match so he reclaims his place at centre, freeing up Hook to return the number 10 jersey. The other change to the team is the return of Leigh Halfpenny on the right wing in place of Morgan Stoddart. Stoddart can consider himself very unlucky as he's scored tries against England and Italy, but Halfpenny is lightning quick and definitely adds some counter-attacking ability to the backline. Their pack is unchanged, which means Adam Jones is not yet ready to return from injury, which is probably just as well for Ireland.

For Ireland their coach Declan Kidney has reacted, predictably enough, with an unchanged team. With Tomas O'Leary still not considered fully fit after his back injury, Eoin Reddan stays at scrum-half and Ronan O'Gara stays at number ten. O'Gara was named man of the match against Scotland and certainly he played well. However, the consensus amongst the dullards in the rugby media that kicking to the corners leads to tries is worrying.

Yes, twice O'Gara had the ball, once in his own half once in theirs, and opted to kick it away. And yes, tries for Jamie Heaslip and Eoin Reddan were the ultimate result. However, what's been largely ignored is the extraordinary generosity of the Scottish team in between the kicks and the tries. From O'Gara's first kick, their full-back Chris Paterson made an utter hash of claiming what should have been a simple catch and ended up desperately slapping the ball into touch. Then from the ensuing lineout, a decent Irish maul was halted and Rory Best broke away. He couldn't believe his luck as both Scottish centres Sean Lamont and Nick DeLuca rushed up to tackle him, leaving a hole in their defence the size of Loch Ness. Best simply handed the ball to the supporting Heaslip who strolled over untouched.

For the second try O'Gara put in an excellent kick from ten metres inside his own half to the Scottish five-metre line. Then the Scottish hooker Ross Ford had a brainwave, opting to take the lineout quickly and throwing it to the back of the line into midfield. This seems to take his own team-mates by surprise and Sean Lamont gathered it only to drop it and Mike Blair was forced to carry it over his own line and concede the five-metre scrum. From the scrum, Heaslip broke away and once again all the Scottish defenders went to him, meaning this time Reddan simply had to rip the ball from Heaslip to walk through untouched.

So in reality the two Irish tries didn't come from cute O'Gara kicks, they came from abject Scottish defending. Even for Ireland's third try, which O'Gara scored himself, the tackling attempts by Ford and Paterson were embarrassing. The point of all this is that Ireland simply can't be so naive as to believe kicking the ball to the corners will work against better teams like England or New Zealand. They will simply say thank you, win their lineouts and hold onto the ball.

There were positives in the Irish display however. Reddan's quick service from the rucks finally activated Ireland's ball-carriers in the pack and David Wallace, Cian Healy, Paul O'Connell and especially Sean O'Brien all made hay. However, any positives were over-shadowed by the 14 penalties that Ireland conceded. All the talk after the French match was about cutting out the stupid penalties so it was infuriating to watch Ireland go out and do the exact same thing again. And then the team wonder why the public are giving them "negative vibes". Despite the "win's a win" spin of the team, supporters know this Irish team can do a lot better than this.

So how will the game go? It's certainly the toughest one to call of the weekend. Ireland have a ridiculously good record in Cardiff, with their loss in 2005 the only one since 1983! Generally they've been close run things though, no more so than two years ago when the whole of Ireland held their breath as Stephen Jones last minute penalty fell short of the line.

You get the sense that it will be a championship defining game for both teams as if they win, their championship will be declared a relative success (even if they lose next week against England/France). From an Irish perspective, you'd hope they've studied the good parts of the game from two weeks ago and can go out and repeat that, while trusting their defence a bit more and being more disciplined at the rucks. Ireland look to have the edge up front and if they can get their backrow running at the Welsh backs, then hopefully they'll do enough to earn a tight win in what could well be a very entertaining game.

Here's hoping for a more entertaining weekend all round to put a smile back on the face of European rugby.

by Jim O'Connor, © 2011-03-10